NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — A rookie NYPD officer pleaded not guilty Wednesday to manslaughter, official misconduct and other charges in the accidental shooting death of a man last year in a darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn public housing complex.
As 1010 WINS’ Al Jones reported, Officer Peter Liang appeared briefly in a Brooklyn courtroom packed with officers as the charges, which also include criminally negligent homicide and assault, were unsealed. He was released without bail.
The victim, 28-year-old Akai Gurley, was killed Nov. 20 while visiting the Louis Pink Houses, a public housing complex in East New York, to get his hair braided. Liang, 27, had less than two years on the job, including his time at the police academy.
Assistant District Attorney Mark Fliedner said Liang was supposed to have kept his finger off the trigger if he had his gun drawn because of a perceived danger.
“The defendant ignored this training,” Fliedner said. “As a result, Mr. Akai Gurley is dead.”
A grand jury on Tuesday indicted Liang, who was placed on modified duty following the incident.
Liang and his partner were patrolling the housing complex, where reports of violent crime had spiked. The hallways were “pitch black” and Liang had his gun drawn as they descended onto an eighth-floor landing, police said after the shooting. Meanwhile, Gurley, who was with a female friend, opened the door into the seventh-floor landing after giving up on his wait for an elevator.
Liang was about 10 feet from Gurley when, without a word and apparently by accident, he fired a shot, police said. Gurley made it down two flights of stairs before collapsing. He was taken to Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center, where he later died.
Fliedner said that immediately after the shooting, Liang and his partner retreated to the eighth floor instead of rendering aid, and he said to his partner, “I’m going to be fired.”
When other officers responded and started to help Gurley, Liang “just stood there,” Fliedner said.
“He took a moment to talk to his partner, decide what to do,” said Liang’s attorney, Stephen Worth. “They are rookie officers with less than two years on the job. I think that’s a situation anybody would get themselves in — they talk about what to do and how to put it over the radio.”
Worth was livid, calling the grand jury “a summary” proceeding that did not take into account the dangerous nature of police work, CBS2’s Lou Young reported.
“An accident can happen, and what happened in this case, despite the spin somebody wants to put on this, this was an accident,” he said.
Fliedner insisted the crime-ridden Pink Houses are not a war zone, but a place where people make their homes, WCBS 880’s Irene Cornell reported.
Cathy Dang runs a non-profit that helps Asian-American families navigate the justice system. She has been fielding calls from people worried that Liang was charged to ease tension between minority communities and the NYPD.
“Many people feel like he’s being used as a scapegoat,” Dang told CBS2’s Weijia Jiang.
Dang believes the DA got it right.
“We believe it’s not an accident,” she said.
Neither does Gurley’s family.
At the housing complex Wednesday, the attorney for Melissa Butler, who was with Gurley when he was shot, said his client is haunted by the events.
“She has to deal with every day that her friend died or was dying in her arms, that she had to apply CPR to try to keep him alive,” Roger Wareham said.
Gurley’s friends and family say they’re more hopeful than they’ve been in a long time.
“This is the first step in justice,” said Kimberly Ballinger, Gurley’s life partner and the mother of his child. “Now all we need is a conviction, which I have faith that we will get.”
But as 1010 WINS’ Carol D’Auria reported, Gurley’s family members were clearly angry.
“My nephew is dead, but Peter Liang can come and go as he pleases of his own recognizance. Where is the justice? If it was a black or brown person, shackles,” Gurley’s aunt, Hertencia Peterson, said.
Peterson said her nephew’s life was sacrificial.
“Now changes will occur, you can bet on that,” she said.
Even before the shooting, the NYPD had been changing how it assigns and trains new officers. Under former Commissioner Ray Kelly, the department assigned rookie officers as reinforcements in parts of the city that have seen increases in crime. The Pink Houses had been the scene of a recent spike in shooting, robberies and assaults.
Under current Commissioner Bill Bratton, new officers are no longer funneled into high-crime precincts as extra manpower, but instead are assigned mentors who are more experienced officers and rotate through different jobs at precincts. Bratton has said the retooling process is taking time but is moving forward.
The case was closely watched following the Dec. 3 grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner on Staten Island. That decision prompted mass protests decrying the grand jury system as biased, and fueled an already growing discord between the city’s rank-and-file police and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was viewed by critics as not publicly supporting police after the decision.
When asked Wednesday about the indictment, de Blasio told reporters, “You know I don’t comment on the specifics of the judicial process.”
But after the grand jury reached its decision in the Garner case, the mayor called that day “painful.”
De Blasio denied that he has changed his tone, arguing that the Garner case was different “because we watched this man die on videotape, and I can’t think of any situation previously that was quite as searing.
“I don’t think it’s smart to compare the different cases,” de Blasio added.
Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said after the Gurley shooting that he would convene a grand jury to investigate, and the results came back less than three months later, about the time it takes grand juries to consider other criminal cases.
“There are no winners,” Thompson said Wednesday. “An innocent man’s life has been taken and a young police officer who joined the police force to serve and protect the people of this great city now stands accused of taking that life.
“We had an obligation to do a thorough and fair investigation on behalf of the people of Brooklyn, and that’s what we did,” Thompson added.
The last time an officer was indicted in New York was 2012, when Richard Haste was charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of Ramarley Graham, but the case was tossed on a technicality and another grand jury declined to indict the officer. When police face criminal charges, the case is usually decided by a judge and not a jury, the defendant’s choice. In 2007, three of five officers involved in the 50-shot death of Sean Bell were indicted on manslaughter charges but were acquitted by a judge. They were later fired.
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